We’re drawn to stories. We like telling them. We like hearing them.

Our parents tell them to us, and we tell them to our kids, and the stories become part of our shared culture. Once upon a time... Green eggs and ham... May the odds be ever in your favor...

So it’s not surprising that we can tap into our story-telling skills as a way of creating understanding.

There’s some evidence that a fact wrapped in a story is much more memorable than the fact presented alone — 22 times more memorable, according to psychologist Jerome Bruner. - Jeff Patton


The Little Picture: A User Story

If you have experience with the agile development method (which we use here at Industrial), you’ll be familiar with the idea of user stories. A user story is a brief, plainly worded description of a user and their requirements. It should be brief enough to fit on an index card. There are a few ways to write a user story, but one accepted template is:

  • As a ____
  • I need to ____
  • So that I can ____

For example, if you have a website with medical articles, you might visualize a user story like this:

  • As a medical researcher,
  • I need to find specialized peer-reviewed articles,
  • So that I can plan my next research project.

This kind of user story is effective in uncovering what tasks a person will go through—in this example, our user will need good searching and filtering tools. It’s also effective in creating empathy in developers and designers: the exercise of writing a user story puts the writer in someone else’s shoes.

The Big Picture: User Story Mapping

A user story prompts us to focus on a specific task or person.

So how can we see the big picture? When we build an app or a website, we’re not building it for one person or one task, we’re building it for many audiences performing several tasks.

We could try to capture all of our user stories in a giant document and then tell everyone on the team to read the document. But this is rarely effective, for many reasons (documentation tends to be long, it gets stale quickly). The main reason that it doesn't tend to be effective is that different people will interpret that documentation in different ways.

Ironically, we put stuff in writing to communicate more clearly and to avoid risk of misunderstanding. But, way too often, the opposite is true. Shared documents aren’t shared understanding. -Jeff Patton


This is what user story mapping does:

  • builds a shared vision
  • prioritizes tasks
  • creates a clear idea of what people need
  • puts emphasis on the person, not the designer or the developer

Try it out

Story mapping is a pattern. It’s what sensible people do to make sense of a whole product or whole feature. -Jeff Patton


User story mapping is wonderfully intuitive. Tasks and activities are written down on sticky notes and arranged in a logical order.

You can follow these steps to try it out, or go straight to the horse’s mouth with Jeff Patton’s User Story Mapping.

  • In a group of 3-5 people
  • Find a large area like a wall or table that you can all stand in front of
  • You’ll each need a stack of sticky notes and something to write with
  • Imagine you are trying to build a to-do app
  • As a group, come up with an idea of a user of this to-do app. Imagine them opening the app.
  • Think about what that person would want to do with their to-do app. Every time you think of something, write it on a sticky note and put it on the wall. Don’t overthink it and don’t worry about where you put the notes. There isn’t a wrong way to do this at this stage.

Sample things you might write down:

  • add a to-do
  • add a deadline to a to-do
  • receive an email when a to-do item is due
  • assign a to-do to someone else
  • mark a to-do as done

After about 10 minutes, pause and read through all the notes. Group together any notes that are the same.

Now, look for related notes, and arrange them vertically. For example, you might put Add a to-do at the top, and Add a deadline under it.

As you go, arrange these groups in a roughly chronological order. For example, you would probably put Add a to-do before Delete a to-do. 

Example of user story mapping

As you go, converse! This is the key to building a shared understanding. You will build this map as a group. And this is how you uncover potential problems or lack of shared understanding. For example, one person in the group might put Mark to-dos as done in the first column, while another person might start with Add a to-do. You need to discuss this. This discussion will help you figure out what your to-do app needs to offer the user.

This little exercise is the tip of the iceberg for user story mapping. If you want to try a more involved exercise, Jeff Patton has a handy 2-page tutorial on story mapping on his website.

It’s important to remember that requirements are just another name for the ideas we have that would help people. -Jeff Patton


User story mapping is useful for establishing priorities, uncovering holes in your thinking, and developing empathy.